By Stuart Littlewood – London
April 23 is when we in England celebrate our patron saint, George.
St George and the Dragon are to be seen everywhere in Bethlehem, especially in and around the ancient Church of the Nativity. Many Bethlehem houses have a panel of St George carved in stone and set in the wall above the front door.
Although George is England’s patron saint he never set foot here, and there is much argument about who this warrior-saint was and where he came from. But there are no such doubts in Palestine: George was a Palestinian born at Lydda and brought up in the Christian faith, although some sources insist that he was born in Cappadocea (Turkey) and taken home by his mother to her native Palestine when his father died.
He decided on a soldiering career, joined the Roman army at the time of Emperor Diolcletian and rose to high rank. He became one of the Emperor’s favourites but when Diocletian, a fanatical slave to the Roman gods, began slaughtering innocent Christians George felt it was time to stand up and be counted for his religious beliefs. He denounced the Emperor for cruelty and tore up his orders. Not surprisingly he was imprisoned and tortured.
George was told his life would be spared if he offered sacrifice to the Roman gods. Instead he prayed to his Christian God, who immediately responded with Heavenly thunderbolts and fireballs and an earthquake that shook the ground and destroyed the temple buildings. That sealed poor George’s fate. He bore his ordeal – being dragged through the streets, stretched on the rack, poked with red-hot irons, cut to ribbons on a wheel of swords, and dunked in quicklime – with such fortitude that Diocletian’s wife converted to Christianity on the spot. This matrimonial upset resulted in her being condemned to death too.
The Romans were expert martyr-makers. George was finally beheaded at Nicomedia on 23 April 303 and buried at Lydda.
After that, holy martyrdom was assured and St George rapidly became a cult figure among soldiers around the world. The earliest known reference to him in Britain was in an account by St Adamnan, the 7th century Abbot of lona, who probably heard the story from a French bishop returning from Jerusalem. George was adopted by Richard the Lionheart as his personal saint in the Crusades. Later, King Edward III made him the patron saint of England and dedicated the Order of the Garter to him.
But George – Al Khadir – is also patron saint of Bethlehem and a figure sacred to Muslims and Christians alike. As one elderly Arab Muslim told me, George is extra special – he’s the only saint who could ride a horse.
The dragon and the sacrificial princess are, of course, romantic add-ons to glorify George in western Christendom’s eyes. The slaying of the unfortunate dragon symbolizes triumph over paganism.
Lydda, with its links to St George, was of great importance to the English and the Crusaders built a church built there and dedicated it to him. It was destroyed by Saladin during the Third Crusade in 1191. The church that stands there now was erected on 1872.
The 1947 UN Partition Plan allocated Lydda to the Arabs, but it was ethnically cleansed by Zionist terror forces, many of its inhabitants massacred and the lands stolen. Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport now stands on the ruins of the old town, called Lod by Israelis.
The English don’t exactly go wild about St George on April 23… unlike the Welsh, Scots and Irish who get very emotional about their patron saints. George is more of a ‘cool dude’ and celebrations are low-key. Even the Church doesn’t seem very enthusiastic about George, preferring their multitude of ‘softy’ saints to this ruffian.
All the same, thank you, people of Palestine, for sharing George with us. Politics is the last resort of scoundrels, to misquote Dr Samuel Johnson slightly, and George represents a welcome bond between ordinary people here and in the Holy Land, bridging the gulf created by corrupted politicians and feckless church leaders.
– Stuart Littlewood is author of the book Radio Free Palestine, which tells the plight of the Palestinians under occupation. For further information please visit www.radiofreepalestine.co.uk. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.